Saturday, October 13, 2012

Spirited away

Cathedral Poetry Prize, Thursday 11th October, 2pm, Manchester Cathedral, Jesus Chapel

Words by Joely Black. Photographs by Jon Atkin.

Here we are once again, my third year reviewing the Poetry Competition run by Manchester Cathedral. My feeling of ownership has grown, but I no longer feel like the terrorist in the corner, the one who dares to disagree. Perhaps it’s because I understand that religion, or perhaps spirituality, is not necessarily just a set of intellectual principles or moral values on one side of a debate. It still provides a framework for human experience, like poetry is a means for expression, a means to bring people together and to mark the passage of time, rituals for birth, growing up and death that are psychologically important to our species. Both seek ways to express vital parts of being human, and human experience.

This year, we are standing room only in the Chapel - the little event I attended in my first year as a reviewer has grown and is now oversubscribed. The books all sell out, and over 200 poets have submitted poems to the competition. The judge Suzanne Batty (above) begins by describing herself as a spiritual secularist, although the poems she has chosen are replete with religious imagery more conventional than in previous years. Two of the winners, the first and third, are narrative poems dealing with the essence of human uncertainty, the struggle of an individual with conscience, with being. The second-placed poem is so simple, and yet captures the entirety of an experience perfectly.

Two of the prize-winners are here to read their work. We listen to the struggle of Barabbas, a man I see anguished on his knees in some strange landscape. Somewhere in the cathedral, a choir practice is taking place, and the voices of visitors echo around the main cathedral. Far from distracting from the reading, I find myself thinking of how our inner worlds are so busy and yet seem so unnoticed. Just as Barabbas' struggle goes on within, while the world goes on around him. Sheila Wild (below) has created a moving account of somebody held in a moment, the stream of consciousness as awareness shifts outside and in, over and over.

Tammy Hermann’s poem took second place. I am suddenly thrown back to childhood, when, as the only atheist child in a religious school, I found myself baffled by the significance of holding my hands together in prayer. Who knew a religious poetry prize could speak to that feeling of emptiness? Helen Luson’s third-placed Tobias and the Angel is another narrative poem, and another story of a human exploring what it means to be alive, and a “did I really see that?” encounter.

Of the runners up, we hear from Rosie Garland, Marie Naughton and Martyn Halsall. Rosie Garland’s poem reminds me of a certain Pink Floyd video. Marie Naughton conjures thoughts of a friend going through the struggle of life with severe illness as yet without a formal diagnosis. These are all human concerns, but that is always the essence of poetry at this competition. Journeys, uncertainty, questions are all strong features of the poems chosen this year. I’m told that many well-known poets submitted to the competition this year, but this is one competition where being ‘a name’ is no guarantee of a prize position. It is an opportunity for new and established poets to participate. I’m already looking forward to next year, to see where the prize takes its contribution to poetry next.

Joely Black is a writer, author and gamer living in Manchester. She has published three fantasy fiction books and is currently working on a post-apocalyptic novel with the author Daren King. She blogs about gaming, fantasy, sci-fi and books at and on Twitter as @TheCharmQuark.

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